A lot of music these days is made with the intention of being downloaded, streamed online or worming its way onto virtual playlists one way or another. This means artists are often at a loss when it comes to live gigs; relying on lights, special effects and other distractions to bring their music to life on stage.
This isn't the case with Belle and Sebastian. They are, first and foremost, a band. They were made for live performances, and they excel on stage. They are all-singing, all-dancing, all-instrument-playing types, and these extra quirks that can’t be found from listening to an album make them worth seeing live. And for us fans in Hong Kong, it was our first chance to see them perform since they began playing almost 20 years ago.
A small technical hitch a few songs in set the tone and reminded the crowd that this was never intended to be a flawless, polished performance, as the band joked about their ability to break things and got chatting with the crowd.
Their meaningful lyrics seem to carry more weight in person, and it’s easy to see why the Hong Kong audience resonates with the messages of some of their songs. In particular, Expectations explores the pressures felt by many Hongkongers, from stressing about exam results to getting into university or building a successful career. Although the lyrics clearly found their roots in Britain - “Do you want to work in Debenham's, because that’s what they expect / Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor” - the message has global reach.
But being a dedicated band didn’t mean Belle and Sebastian neglected to put on a show fit for the digital age, and the video accompaniments to the music were just as entrancing as the songs themselves. All eyes were firmly locked on the stage throughout the night.
The crowd roared in support as lead vocalist Stuart Murdoch extended a yellow umbrella during their performance of Piazza, New York Catcher, replacing the lyrics “I’ll meet you at the statue in an hour” with “I’ll meet you at the protests in an hour”. It was nice to see the band not only personifying the performance for Hong Kong, but showing an active interest in what’s actually happening in our city. Other artists might have been reluctant to bring politics into their music for fear of offending or losing fans, but the crowd welcomed Belle and Sebastian’s commitment, and if they didn’t support their decision they kept it to themselves, offering cheers and applause.
Towards the end of the gig, the band invited a dozen members of the eager crowd from the front row up on stage, to join in their performance and experience some on-stage dancing. As the group crowded around Murdoch for a final chorus, some sneaky souls tried to snap a selfie, but Murdoch jokingly told everyone to put their phones away and enjoy the show, gently hinting that some of us put too much emphasis on appearances and social media, and not enough on enjoying the moment.
Thanks for visiting us, Belle and Sebastian, and please don’t wait another 20-odd years until your next trip.